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Review: 'Fun Home' unpacks a lot of Broadway baggage in American Stage's small space

From left: Mercy Roberts, Mollie Posnik and Adrianne Hick play different versions of Alison Bechdel in American Stage’s production of “Fun Home” in St. Petersburg. [Courtesy of Joey Clay Photography]
From left: Mercy Roberts, Mollie Posnik and Adrianne Hick play different versions of Alison Bechdel in American Stage’s production of “Fun Home” in St. Petersburg. [Courtesy of Joey Clay Photography]
Published Jul. 24, 2019

You're right there in the house on Maple Avenue.

That's part of the power of Fun Home, the Tony-winning musical based on Alison Bechdel's beloved, bestselling graphic memoir about trying to understand her complicated father while awakening her own sexuality. Much of the play involves a grownup Alison stepping back inside her childhood home, into the house her father would obsessively polish and shine until "everything is balanced and serene." It doesn't work as well if she can't bring the audience with her.

That's the beauty of a new production of Fun Home at American Stage. A story as personal as Alison's deserves an intimate space, and here it gets one. You're so close to Alison, so immersed in her memory, that you feel, for better and worse, a bit like Bechdel yourself.

It may therefore feel truer to the original spirit of the show's run at the cozy Circle in the Square Theatre — one of Broadway's smallest theaters — than its first national tour, which played the Straz Center's massive Morsani Hall in 2017. Shrinking Lisa Kron's play back to scale is, pardon the pun, no small achievement by director Karla Hartley and set designer Charles Murdock Lucas, whose stage incorporates an array of frames that feel, fittingly, like the panels of Bechdel's book.

That's how we should see the play, too, because it's how Alison sees her family as she hunches over a drawing desk, pouncing at fuzzy memories she's desperate to ink together. She — the grownup Alison, played with pained frustration by Adrianne Hick — is Fun Home's omnipresent yet not-quite-omniscient center, constantly sketching her past and muttering, "Caption ... caption ... caption," like she's calling on some narrator to explain what was really going on.

What she does know: Her parents ran a funeral home, her father was secretly gay and he killed himself by stepping in front of a truck. (That's not a spoiler; it's all laid out in the opening minutes). The play flashes back to childhood memories of her father and family, then to her experience coming out to her parents in college, then back and forth and so on, usually with grown-up Alison watching from above or amid the action like a (mostly) unseen ghost.

Alison's past selves — Small Alison, played by 14-year-old Mercy Roberts, a rising freshman at Berkeley Preparatory School, and Medium Alison, played with palpable anxiety by Mollie Posnik — grapple with David Mann's fastidious but hard-to-read Bruce Bechdel as best they can, which is rarely that fruitful.

Mann has a tough row to hoe; he has to deliver hints of What Makes Dad Tick without ever offering a fully satisfying explanation, because Alison never got one, and so why should we? And yet Mann plays keenly off his daughters, from Small Alison's vexation over her father's inscrutable personality to Medium Alison's dawning realization that she's more like him than they both know.

Mann and Roberts' relationship is particularly tender, even when it's distant. When Bruce and mom Helen (Kristin Carbone) fight, you feel the fight through Small Alison's eyes as much as through those of her parents. Same when her father sings her a lullaby before going out cruising in New York.

While not exactly heavy, Fun Home is also rarely that lighthearted, settling on a tone that's more wry than giggly. Kron and Jeanine Tesori's score, chamber-folksy with few company numbers, might have something to do with it. American Stage went with two-person band, keyboardist and musical director Jeremy D. Silverman and percussionist Melanie Downs. It's plenty for most of the score, especially each cast member's own belt-it-out moment in the spotlight (Posnik's terrific Changing My Major and Roberts' eye-widening Ring of Keys are highlights). However, it feels a hair lacking on Come to the Fun Home, a Jackson 5-ish faux funeral home jingle sung by Small Alison and her brothers (Brenley Degwert and Tanner Grant) that happens to be the most instantly funny and catchy song in the show.

But the odd moments when you wish the show was bigger are fair tradeoff for the moments when Fun Home gets so personal and immediate, drawing you closer and closer to Alison's ever-present notebook. During Medium Alison and her dad's last long talk, you find yourself leaning in to catch the big reveal between them, even though you know it won't come, because grown-up Alison's right there hovering in the middle of the set, with a look on her face letting you know it never did.

It isn't until Fun Home's final, soaring song — its final, perfect line — that Alison figures out a way to put her messy non-catharsis into perspective, by linking it to another childhood memory of her dad. It's a playful, loving moment that took place in the house on Maple Avenue, one to which Alison still clings. You'll be glad American Stage pulled you in to see it.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

IF YOU GO

Fun Home

Runs through Aug. 18. $48 and up. American Stage, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 823-7529. For showtimes, visit americanstage.com.

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